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2 Provo businessmen face off for city's mayoral race

Lewis Billings bought his first car before he had a driver's license. He owned his first house before he was old enough to seek his fortune. His first business venture came before his first pimple.

Billings was the consummate businessman at a young age. Not much has changed, although acne no longer is a worry.Some have wondered what Billings does for a living. Basically, he spends money to make money.

"I'm not a developer, " he said. "I'm an investor of real estate."

It was an interest in vintage automobiles that launched Billings' career as an entrepreneur. He bought a 1926 Model T Ford to fix up at age 14. He earned the money as a bookkeeper at Calder Bros. in Provo and through the sale of his own windshield washer solution.

Billings, a self-taught mechanic, worked on the car in the early mornings, but found his hands freezing in the winter. The owners of a duplex turned down his offer to rent the garage next to the dwelling. Undaunted, he made an offer to buy the garage - duplex and all. Within three years, Bil-lings turned the place into a money maker.

"That's what really opened my eyes to the power of real estate investment," said Billings, who still owns several rental properties.

The purchase of that first antique car led to more. Billings eventually restored a total of 17 vehicles. He doesn't consider himself a great mechanic. But he was good at following manuals and absorbing what he observed on old cars at places such as Harrah's in Las Vegas.

Billings, now 41, rented out his vehicles for parades and other events before selling all but three of them. He still owns the 1926 Model T in addition to a 1902 Baynes buggy and a 1911 Mother-in-law Roadster.

"That's how I got into leasing. I do a lot of leasing," he said.

In between buying, selling and restoring cars, Billings learned to fly airplanes. Even that turned into a business venture. He and two others went in on a Piper Arrow. They rented it out to other pilots to pay off the loan.

Billings was born and reared in Provo. He attended Sunset and Timpanogos elementaries, Dixon Junior High School and Provo High School. He studied engineering at Brigham Young University but did not graduate.

Other than stints with his brother's company, Billings Corp., Cal-Disk, a manufacturer and supplier of rotating memory products for computers, and most recently with Provo City, Billings has been self-employed. Some of the ventures he has dabbled in, such as a railroad tank car service center on the old Ironton steel mill property in south Provo, never got off the ground.

Billings and two partners still own 200 acres in Ironton, some of which is contaminated from an old U.S. Steel mill. Provo City secured an option to 150 acres of the land in 1991. The City Council is awaiting the outcome of an agreement with federal and state environmental officials and USX to clean up the ground before deciding to buy it.

Contrary to what some believe, Billings said, he and the city have not arranged some sweetheart deal.

"A lot of people don't understand that was not a good investment for Lewis Billings. We will not get back what we put into that," he said. The city's annual payment on the option basically covers property tax.

Up until July, Billings worked as Provo's chief administrative officer under Mayor George Stewart. "I did not seek that opportunity. I met George Stewart totally by accident," he said.

The mayor and Billings became acquainted while serving on the Provo School Foundation board together. Stewart hired Billings, a former Utah County Republican Party chairman, to help with some legislative issues. He appointed Billings as chief administrative officer to replace Tom Martin, who died of cancer.

"It's a very demanding place. A lot of people don't realize how demanding it is to run a $100 million city," Billings said.

Various demands on Billings' time have kept him from tinkering with his antique cars. But the father of six has a son showing keen interest in the automobiles. And he doesn't mind getting a little grease under his fingernails now and again.